As part of their Saving Childhood series, USA Today has published two articles this week about girls getting their periods earlier than ever – as early as age 7 in some cases. Early puberty is disconcerting for several reasons, one being that girls who have their first menstrual period before age 10 are also more likely to develop asthma, according to a new study. Another reason why early puberty is worrisome is because doctors don’t fully understand why it’s happening – yet up to 15% of all American girls experience puberty symptoms by age 7. Circa 1900, most girls matured at age 14. Why have we lost 7 years of childhood in just a century?
Early puberty rates are even higher among black girls in the US, with 23% hitting puberty by age 7. According to USA Today, “Studies consistently show that black girls in the USA go into puberty earlier than whites,” yet “100 years ago, black girls actually matured later than whites.” Genetics may be at play, as well as diet and environmental factors. According to experts, other leading causes of early puberty in girls include rising rates of prematurity at birth (which can lead to “catch-up growth” and subsequent obesity) as well as “family stress” and not living with a biological father.
Marcia Herman-Giddens of UNC-Chapel Hill says, “Girls are being catapulted into adolescence long before their brains are ready for the change — a phenomenon that poses serious risks to their health.” So how can we prevent our daughters from experiencing early puberty?
Here are some tips suggested by USA Today:
Exercise. “Most studies find a strong link between obesity and early puberty, so staying active may help girls delay the process,” says Frank Biro, director of adolescent medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Exercise may also help relieve any “family stress” your child may be experiencing.
Breastfeed. “Breast milk contains active hormones that may help to regulate overall growth, as well as the timing of puberty,” says Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and scholar in residence at Ithaca College. Breastfed babies are also less likely to be obese as older children.
Beware of cosmetic content. Placenta extract, often found in hair products, has high hormone levels. Furthermore, Biro says many cosmetics contain phthalates which can interfere with the hormonal system. (Phthalates are used to soften plastics.) Speaking of plastics, BPA – also found in the lining of metal cans and on receipt paper – is thought to contribute to early puberty, as well.
Other things you can do as a parent to delay puberty in your daughter include avoiding smoking during pregnancy, which can lead to premature birth. Be sure to eat fewer meat and high-fat dairy products, which “are more likely than other foods to harbor chemicals that interfere with hormones,” Janssen says. Additionally, don’t use pesticides, since they can interfere with hormones, says Julia Brody, a scientist with Silent Spring Institute. In other words, eat a diet of mostly fresh, organic vegetables and you’ll be fine. That being said, since most of America eats nothing but pre-prepared foods from plastic containers and cans alongside meat and high-fat dairy products, I think the early puberty epidemic should really have explained itself.
Need a reason to make the changes necessary to delay the onset of puberty in your daughter? Experts say “delaying a girl’s first period by even one year reduces her lifetime exposure to estrogen, cutting future risk of breast cancer by 5-20%.”